Upon reflection, I’ve recently copped to the fact that I am a total cake-pusher. To my mind, there is no occasion that is not improved by the addition of cake. Not just birthdays or weddings, though there’s little I love more than coming up with just the right birthday confection for a friend. And I maaay have bullied at least a few couples into having cakes at their weddings that would otherwise have forgone this sweetest of nuptial traditions. (“Think of the pictures!” I say, and I mostly mean it.)
But beyond those obvious events, cake should still always be welcome. Whether a humble loaf that lengthens a quiet afternoon tea with a friend or a grandiose, beglittered tower shining over a swanky soiree, cake is the sweet exclamation point to so many of life’s adventures, big or small.
This cake, flavored with tarragon and grapefruit, is a perfect harbinger of spring. But I’ll always think of it as engagement cake. Like my recent engagement to the lovely (and long-suffering) Mr. T, this cake also took a while to come together, but was ultimately very worth it. How, though, are they related?
Well, I popped the question to a (relatively) unsuspecting Mr. T the day he became an American citizen, which happened to fall on the week of our 11th anniversary and Valentine’s Day. (So trite I promise you it was an accident…) After our celebratory dinner we came home to a box of Recchiuti chocolates, our traditional Valentine’s Day indulgence.
As we generally do, we each selected a chocolate and cut them in half to share. Our favorite new piece was the tarragon ganache topped with a piece of candied grapefruit peel. Even in the chocolate, both flavors were pure and strong and really, really good together. I resolved to recreate the the pairing in some other form as soon as possible… which, of course, wasn’t till last week. In my defense, though, researching wedding venues is no small chore, and I also had to candy some grapefruit peel to start with.
Having candied the grapefruit peel a few weeks ago (here’s my take on candied orange peel, just use grapefruit instead), I finally got my act together to bake the actual cake last weekend. I wanted to serve it as an accompaniment to the grapefruit-lemon honeycomb I had planned for our secular spring chocolate bunny luncheon (you know the one…). The pairing proved a winning one, but the cake is quite amazingly good on its own.
As with the chocolate that inspired it, the cake’s combination of flavors is unusual and invigorating. The tarragon’s sweet, grassy, anise notes provide a dynamic counterpoint to the grapefruit’s bittersweet citrus tang. Delicious uniqueness aside, this is a perfectly behaved tea cake as well–moist and long-lived–and it pairs perfectly with an afternoon cuppa.
This is a further elaboration of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s poundcake, whose lemon-poppyseed version I’ve waxed poetic about here. This recipe is easily doubled and freezes well, so why not make two? Also, you’ll need a nice bunch of tarragon for this, any leftovers will make a lovely vinaigrette.
3 tbs milk
3 large eggs
zest of 1 (well-scrubbed, preferrably organic) grapefruit
2 tbs minced tarragon leaves
3/4 c sugar
1 1/2 c cake flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
13 tbs unsalted butter
1/4 c finely minced candied grapefruit peel (optional)
Syrup (recipe below)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 8″x4″ (or something close…) loaf pan, line with a sling of parchment paper with an overhang on the long sides, butter again and dust with flour. Once evenly distributed, invert the pan over the sink and knock out the excess flour. Set the prepared pan aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk and eggs, just till they’re evenly combined.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or large mixing bowl) combine the sugar, grapefruit zest, and tarragon. With (scrupulously clean) hands, rub the zest and herbs into the sugar till evenly moistened and fragrant. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and half of the egg mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed (high speed if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 minute.
Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining egg mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. Toss the finely minced candied grapefruit peel with a tsp of flour to coat and fold it into the batter, stirring briefly to distribute evenly.
Scrape the prepared batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface. Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cover loosely with buttered foul after 30 minutes to prevent overbrowning. The cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.
While the cake the baking, prepare the Grapefruit-Tarragon syrup, below.
As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, prick all over with a cake tester and brush it with half of the syrup. Cool in the pan for 10 min. Loosen the sides with a spatula and invert onto a greased wire rack. Poke bottom of the cake with the cake tester, brush it with some of the syrup, and reinvert onto a wire rack. Brush remaining syrup on the sides and cool completely before wrapping air-tight. (I often pop the cake into my well-greased hand and do the poking and soaking of the bottom and sides all at once… one looses less syrup to the counter that way and you’re less likely to tear the top of the cake, which is a bit of a bummer.) Keep wrapped overnight to give the syrup a chance to distribute evenly.
1/4 c + 2 tbs sugar
1/4 c (scant) freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
2 tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 leafy stalks fresh tarragon
In a small pan over medium heat, combine the sugar, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, and tarragon. Stirring, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and cover till needed. Strain before using.